How JHA’s Prison Monitoring Works

As Illinois’ only non-partisan prison watchdog, JHA is committed to two vitally interconnected goals: advocating for safe, humane, and cost-effective prison reform and also providing our readers—who include the general public, lawmakers, journalists, correction officials, and inmates and their loved ones—with the most accurate picture possible of the facilities we monitor. 

For more than 115 years, JHA has served as Illinois' independent prison watchdog. Our work is rooted in our history and mission, which is not to advocate for any one’s particular point of view, but rather to use everything we learn about Illinois’ prisons to drive reform that benefits everyone impacted by the justice system. Our reports include prisoners’ perspectives—as well as staff and administration’s perspectives—because we think that along with other information we gather through our monitoring process they give our readers invaluable and otherwise inaccessible information about prisons and the experiences of people who live and work in them. This is consistent with best practices and international human rights guidance on prison monitoring, which all emphasize that “talking with persons deprived of their liberty forms the basis of the process of documenting the conditions of detention.” (See Monitoring Places of Detention: A Practical Guide, pg. 80, emphasis in the original)

As JHA is one of a small handful of independent organizations in the United States that monitor their state’s correctional system, we recognize that our work is unique, and it may not be entirely clear how we do what we do. We therefore would like to take this opportunity to explain our method and how we specifically use interviews and anecdotal information.

There are four kinds of information that JHA uses to write our prison monitoring reports. First, there is data we receive from the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) about its operations, which come from questionnaires we submit to a facility’s administration, the agency’s mandated Annual and Quarterly reports to the legislature, and conversations we have with the administration during and after our prison visits. This process includes submitting a draft of our report where we ask administrators to check our work for factual errors before we publish it. JHA also always lets IDOC respond to anything we write in our reports. Second, JHA uses our staff’s and prison-monitoring volunteers’ direct observations of conditions from our one-day monitoring visits, which are scheduled at IDOC’s convenience often months ahead of time. Third, we ground our work in the perspectives of people who live and work in prisons, which we learn about through interviews on our monitoring visits, surveys administered to inmates and staff during visits, and outside communications with staff, inmates, and their loved ones. And fourth, we rely on our research of policy and best practices to guide and supplement our findings and recommendations.

To be clear: while JHA believes that interviews with inmates are an essential part of our monitoring process, we never take individual statements at face value. The problem is not simply that prisoners, staff, or administration may not want to tell an outside observer like JHA what is really happening. More fundamentally, few if any people possess a complete, accurate, and unbiased account of all the things that happen in prison. We address the limitations of anecdotal information by never publishing individual claims that also do not represent clear trends we observe through our monitoring and communications efforts. On a given prison visit, JHA interviews between 80-100 inmates. Our Prison Response Organizer also corresponds with inmates and their loved ones every year through more than 3,000 letters, phone calls, and emails. In these communications, JHA responds to requests for assistance, and we also record them in our database, which allows us to track particular issues by facility. Through these efforts, JHA is able to identify common issues and problems. For instance, if we visit a facility, and the majority of inmates we interview talk about problems using the prison system’s grievance system, or if many inmates have good things to say about a particular program or the way they are treated by staff, we think that is noteworthy and should be included in our monitoring report. Research demonstrates this kind of information is vital to the operations of Illinois’ prison system, as attitudes shape the culture of correctional facilities and can have wider implications for security. Including these perspectives in our reports provides IDOC with an important opportunity to respond and educate inmates about its policies and procedures, while it also shows inmates and their loved ones that JHA uses what we learn from them in our advocacy.

This process is precisely how JHA uses our monitoring to promote and sustain cost-effective changes in law and policy that help IDOC, inmates, and the general public. In 2012, for instance, JHA was the primary proponent of bipartisan legislation that authorized IDOC to award up to 180 days of sentence credits to low-level offenders for completing educational programs, taking part in community service, or demonstrating good behavior. Our support grew directly out of our monitoring, which had documented the growth of Illinois’ prison population and its adverse impact on inmates and staff. While much more needs to be done to reduce Illinois’ costly use of incarceration, this law has enabled IDOC to successfully stabilize its prison population. Similarly, in 2013, JHA used our monitoring to support a bipartisan legislative resolution to hire the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) to conduct an independent review of IDOC’s healthcare system. This resolution came directly from the large number of complaints we receive about prison healthcare from inmates and staff, corroborated by our analysis of healthcare staffing levels and resources, as well as several ongoing class-action lawsuits and individual civil rights claims. Rather than relying solely on litigation to address to these system problems, we supported this legislative action because it will provide Illinois with an objective expert analysis of IDOC’s healthcare system and a clear set of public findings and recommendations “to ensure inmates have access to the medical care needed to meet their health needs.” These victories would not have been possible without our monitoring and what we learn from inmates and their experiences in prison.

While JHA is constantly looking for ways to improve our work, we believe that our monitoring process provides the most accurate account that we can based on our best judgment and the information available to us. We look forward to continuing this work with the input and collaboration of all of the system’s stakeholders.